Tim McDonnell joined Climate Desk after stints at Mother Jones and Sierra magazine. He remains a cheerful guy despite covering climate change all the time. Originally from Tucson, Tim loves tortillas and epic walks.
"I don't think there's very much that can't be joked about."
Growing up in Kansas City, Missouri, Calvin Trillin realized early on that he was destined for a career in writing. "Math was not my best subject," he's fond of saying. "I was never able to convince my math teachers that many of my answers were meant ironically." After a stint in the Army, Trillin, now 75, wound up at The New Yorker, where his regular column took him around the country as he limned the lives of average Americans, telling their stories with a bone-dry, razor-sharp wit that earned him a reputation as a preeminent American humorist. He also wrote for The Nation, penning political satire (including his legendary "deadline poetry"), culture critiques, and side-splitting roasts of his editor, the "wily and parsimonious" Victor S. Navasky, whom Trillin first met while writing for Navasky's satirist magazine Monocle. ("I used to assure Navasky that the lack of a sense of humor was probably not an insurmountable handicap for the editor of a humor magazine," he writes).
Last week, Random House released Quite Enough of Calvin Trillin: Forty Years of Funny Stuff, which collects many of the reporter's (he doesn't like the term "writer," as you'll see) greatest essays, columns, and poems. I sat down with Trillin to talk about his career, the tea party, and the art of comedy.
Mother Jones: I wonder if you could talk about yourself for a minute.
Calvin Trillin: "Dashing." Put that down.
MJ: Okay, "dashing," got it. But biographically speaking, you didn't start out writing these humor columns. You started out as a serious reporter.
CT: And I ended up a serious reporter. I mean, this has been a sideline always.
MJ: Is that the way you see it?
CT: I see myself as a reporter who does other things. Once, years ago, my wife said, "When people ask you what you do, you shouldn't say you're a reporter, you should say you're a writer." And we lived in Nova Scotia in the summer, still do, and the next time we came through customs late at night the guy said, "What do you do for a living?" And I said I was a writer, and he just took that car apart. And I said, "I'm going back to being a reporter; it was much easier." For 15 years I did a piece every three weeks for The New Yorker from someplace in the country. Magazine people used to say, "How do you keep up with the pace?" And newspaper people used to say, "What else do you do?" But I've always thought of all these others things as growing out of reporting. And the fact that the first piece in here is from about 1965 and then it skips a few years, I think is significant in that I was really having trouble finding a form that would work for the sort of humor I wrote.
MJ: What did it take for you early on to want to experiment with that kind of writing?
CT: Oh, I think I just got an idea for something, wrote it, and sent it in. The New Yorker was, you know, a good place for that, they were sort of open to everything. But they weren't open to having a column, which they are now. But when the person I refer to as the wily and parsimonious Victor S. Navasky wanted a column, at that time I was doing a New Yorker column every three weeks, so at that time it was a week of reporting, a week of writing, and a week of sort of paying the bills and looking for the next story, so I did the [Nation] column in the off week, and it took me some time before I sort of figured out the natural way to do that.
MJ: So you never set out from the beginning to do a humor column?
CT: No, I was someone who didn't know exactly what he wanted to do. I knew it would have to do with words, and not with numbers or with manual dexterity. I mean, I knew I wasn't going to be a surgeon or an accountant.
MJ: The oldest piece in the book dates back to the mid-'60s. What's different for you now than it was then, in the way you approach your writing?
CT: I don't think anything's different. When I did the column, I was thinking all the time about what the column was going to be about. And I was maybe more attentive about reading the paper, and even on Sunday watching the Washington talk shows, with the people I call the Sabbath gasbags. Now I still do a poem once a week, but that seems easier—I always say I just set the shower on iambic pentameter on Sunday night and see what comes out. The poems, or so-called poems, or doggerels, or whatever they are, started a lot broader than they ended up being. With the George W. Bush administration, I started concentrating more on politics.
Twitter is great for staying up-to-date on, well, pretty much everything: the news, celebrity gossip, your roommate's best-friend's breakfast. But a new paper out today in the journal Science suggests that Twitter can also be used to track peoples' moods. The researchers found that, across the globe, tweets are predictably upbeat or cranky based on the local time of day.
Cornell University sociologists Scott Golder and Michael Macy spent two years collecting 509 million tweets from 2.4 million users in 84 different countries (albeit with a notable dearth of representation from Africa). Using a well-established text analysis tool, they scored tweets based on their use of hundreds of positive words (like "happy" or "enthusiastic") or negative words (like "sad" or "anxious"). When Macy and Golder plotted these scores against the tweet's time stamp, they found what should come as no surprise to anyone who works a nine-to-five: peoples' moods are best early in the morning, slowly deteriorate as the day wears on, then finally pick up in the evening (read: after happy hour). And, cultural differences be damned, the same was true worldwide, suggesting mood is hard-wired in the human psyche.
"Twitter is a goldmine for being able to observe human behavior," Macy said. "We all have basically the same biology, and the pattern we found was very robust."
More than 100 miles of the proposed path cuts across one of the nation's richest fossil fields, InsideClimate Newsreports. The Hell Creek Formation, which covers a large swath of southeastern Montana, is famous for its prodigious supply of triceratops fossils. (Many other prehistoric creatures, including T-rex and the aquatic plesiosaur, have also been found nearby.) As the pipe is laid underground in the area, the excavation is practically guaranteed to unearth all kinds of old bones, according to George Stanley, a University of Montana paleontologist. Unless they are protected properly, he adds, most fossils will start decomposing shortly after being exposed to air.
Tinariwen sound-checks like any other band: Musicians filter onstage one at a time, adjust knobs, tune up, play little melodies. It's a scene of subdued chaos, like the pleasant cacophony that precedes a classical orchestra performance. But the last musician to step into the soft blue stage lights of Bimbo's 365 Club in San Francisco isn't noodling. A faded old Fender Telecaster hangs from frontman Ibrahim Ag Alhabib's shoulder, but for now it's silent. His dark eyes stare absently out at the empty hall from under a shaggy Jimi Hendrix mane. The look says, "I'm here, but I'm a million miles away."
Really, it's more like 6,000 miles: Tinariwen hails from the harsh, windswept deserts of northern Mali, and despite a decade touring the world the band is still fixed—musically, spiritually, politically—to that spot. Watching the group perform early this month was like experiencing a hallucinatory mirage; intellectually I knew I was in San Francisco, but all my senses told me I had landed somewhere deep in the Sahara. This is the central irony of Tinariwen: that a band that so keenly communicates a sense of place could be formed by members of the nomadic Tuareg people, who have for centuries (and still today) wandered restlessly through the desert with nothing but a few belongings and a fierce disdain for anything remotely static—including the Malian government.
Coming at us just days after a wide-reaching earthquake jolted the East Coast, Hurricane Irene is gathering steam for a possible landfall in that same area as soon as this weekend. But unlike the quake, Irene might be cause for real alarm, including warnings from experts that it could be the "most devastating storm to ever hit" states like New York and New Jersey. Read on for more info on Hurricane Irene.